In Vietnam, America has an unlikely ally

At the regional level there are other imperatives driving the US-Vietnam relationship forward. One of these imperatives is the rise of China across the region.

The adage that in politics there are no permanent friends or enemies but only permanent interests, rings true when one looks at the growing relations between the United States and Vietnam. Forty years ago when the Vietnam War ended few could have anticipated the turn US-Vietnam relations have taken today.

In the Asia-Pacific region Vietnam has today emerged as a potential ally for the US. The rapprochement that began in 1995 under the Clinton administration has today grown further because of the growing mutual economic interests, with defence cooperation likely in the foreseeable future.
Following the end of World War II when the US foreign policy emphasised the containment of Communism, Vietnam was the prime focus. Both the French and the US engaged in a 30-year war against Vietnam. Having divided Vietnam into North and South Vietnam there was an attempt to keep Communism from spreading to the South. This was similar to the Korean example, which was also divided on ideological lines. In the Vietnamese case, however, the French as a colonial power and the US as an anti-Communist force were both eventually overthrown. The defeat of the US in 1975 left a scar in the US political psyche. From 1975 till 1995, the two countries did not have diplomatic ties.
The Clinton administration tried to re-establish diplomatic ties, amidst worries, given the impact left by the defeat of the US. The move to readdress this relationship in light of the changed realities of the Cold War had to factor in unresolved issues resulting from the war itself.
Issues concerning the prisoners of war and those missing in action were significant. Also on the Vietnamese side both economic assistance and war reparations were considered important. By 1994 the move to lift the embargo against Vietnam had made considerable progress, facilitating resumption of diplomatic ties by 1995.
Today this relationship is being viewed as a significant addition to the US’ pool of allies in the Asia-Pacific region. Over the last 18 years the relationship has improved, especially in economic ties where the US has emerged as a crucial trading partner for Vietnam, with trade between the two countries standing at $22 billion.
Another area of growing bilateral interest has been public health, environment and disaster management. One of the moves by the US in recent times has been to assist in the cleaning-up operations of areas in Vietnam affected by the use of Agent Orange — a defoliant used during the war to clear up the forested areas through which the Vietnamese resistance forces moved between North and South Vietnam. The operation is seen as a very significant goodwill measure undertaken by the US to win the hearts of the Vietnamese people.
There is increasing cooperation in the field of education too, promising greater people-to-people contact. An estimated 15,000 Vietnamese students are studying in the US today, their number likely to go up in coming years. However, understanding each other’s political systems and issues concerning human rights are areas that still need a better approach. The US Congress has tried to link non-humanitarian assistance to human rights issues. In fact, dialogues between the two countries on human rights were suspended for two years between 2004 and 2006. They have been resumed of late, promising positive outcomes in cross-cultural links.
At the regional level there are other imperatives driving this relationship forward. One of these imperatives is the rise of China across the region. For Vietnam, China has been historically seen as a dominant power and an aggressor. Interestingly, the word Vietnam itself is derived from An-Nam, meaning a pacified south. And historically the Chinese have seen the southern areas to their kingdom as a region that needs to be kept under control. In fact, there is a 1,000-year history of domination by the Chinese over the southern regions, which has caused a degree of wariness in the relations between China and Vietnam.
The US for its part critically looks at the rise of China in the Asia-Pacific region.
Thus, the US efforts to recalibrate its ties with Vietnam are significant at this juncture. In fact, the American view of the whole Southeast Asia is changing in keeping with the changing geo-strategic dynamics in the region. Of its two strongest allies in the region — the Philippines and Thailand — Thailand is today showing greater closeness to China. Given this shift, Vietnam is today assuming a greater importance in the US’ larger security calculations for the region.
One of the growing areas in the US-Vietnam ties is maritime security. With the concerns over the rights of the claimants to the South China Sea issue, the Chinese and the Asean members are trying to work out a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. Given the US’ strategic interests in the seas and the need to maintain its presence, the US would like to further enlarge the areas of its cooperation with Vietnam. Both Vietnam and the Philippines have been offering the toughest resistance to Chinese assertions in the regional waters. The US’ backing to these two countries will be seen as support to the regional countries which are claimants to the territorial limits in the South China Sea. It also reflects the US interest in maintaining its own rights to be a major player in this region.
The US security strategy in the Asia-Pacific region is known as the “hubs and spokes” arrangement. This has often combined both bilateralism and multi-lateralism as part of a two-tier security arrangement. Bilaterally the US is closely linked with Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. Vietnam is likely to be another significant bilateral ally in the region. At the multilateral level the US is also part of the Asean, Asean Regional Forum, East Asia Summit, and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. With the growing relations and the possibility of a strategic partnership with Vietnam deepening, there is a new dynamic emerging in the region.

The writer is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, JNU


I am agreed with you 100

I am agreed with you 100 percent. The only thing prevent Vietnam to become full fledge US ally is human rights and personal freedom issues. China is ancestral threat and enemy of the Vietnamese, they never trust the Chinese and never will be. It's amazing to me that you know so much factual things about Vietnam then most of young Vietnamese unlike most Chinese so- called scholar s twisted historian facts to fit their own agenda.

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